Bickley: Coyotes’ next ownership already signaling change in culture

Jul 3, 2019, 4:16 PM | Updated: Jul 7, 2019, 8:43 pm
(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)...
(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

A sports town is only as good as its owners. The Valley has grown considerably in this arena.

Michael Bidwill has atoned for the competitive sins of his father, transforming the Cardinals into a model NFL franchise. Robert Sarver is no longer meddling, giving James Jones more autonomy than any general manager he’s ever employed.

And in a long-awaited karmic kiss, the Coyotes will soon be owned by the billionaire son of Cuban immigrants.

That’s right. A billionaire named Alex Meruelo. A self-made sort who is aggressive, passionate, a former athlete and rich enough to buy his own Mediterranean island.

And look what’s happening already, before Meruelo has officially taken control.

The Coyotes traded for Phil Kessel, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a perfect fit in Phoenix. They snagged center Carl Soderberg from Colorado, preying on a team dumping salary. They are adding the kind of impact pieces Rick Tocchet needs to turn the NHL’s longest-running farce into a legitimate NHL force.

“There’s going to be a lot of new faces, and obviously some guys coming in to try and take jobs,” Coyotes winger Lawson Crouse said. “In order to have success in this league, you need players who hold others accountable for their actions and their play. And I think we have a really good balance of a determined young core and some older veterans who have been around the league.”

The gift of liquid, deep-pocketed ownership comes at a defining time in the Coyotes future, where they need a tangible new future to secure that new arena. The clock is ticking.

In a previous era, the NHL was too often a magnet for paper tigers and hedge-fund wannabes who could move decimal signs and fake their way into franchise ownership. The Coyotes, in particular, have been grounded by owners who didn’t have the means and/or didn’t know what they were getting into, spurring bankruptcy hearings and annual relocation rumors.

That has obviously changed.

We have all lived the Coyotes’ sordid history, which spans more scandals than playoff runs. They have been the scourge of the league, and one of their best seasons occurred with no ownership presence in the building whatsoever, when the NHL technically owned the team.

The recurring malfeasance created the only hockey market that cheers Bettman while booing Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in history who failed spectacularly as big boss in Phoenix.

Bettman calls the addition of Meruelo, “an extraordinarily positive step for the Coyotes and their fans in Arizona.”

As a result, the Coyotes are in great position to claim the Valley’s next major professional championship. They’ve had the right combination of GM-head coach-team captain once before, with Don Maloney, Dave Tippett and Shane Doan.

But the team has never had adequate resources. In their best times, they won with grit and great leadership. In their worst of times, they couldn’t even afford a marketing budget.

Today, the team is extremely close to being a real contender. John Chayka is the most interesting GM in the game. Rick Tocchet was the perfect replacement for Tippet, saving the franchise from the wrath of irrelevance.

Yet Tocchet knows the culture problem in Arizona all too well. Because the franchise has been a long-running joke, players that come and dress for Arizona don’t always have the highest standards or purest intent. They don’t carry the fear of failure. They don’t feel pressure from the region and the fan base to take losses seriously.

That has changed overnight. Now they can afford the handful of players who can actually change the culture and the ceiling in Arizona.

For the first time in their two-plus decades in Arizona, they have a rich owner. Maybe even the right owner. The kind that can lift a franchise with his wallet.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Bickley: Coyotes’ next ownership already signaling change in culture